Why Texting Turns Us Back Into Teenagers

After Mary Delano argued on the phone with her husband about why he wasn't doing his share of the housework—and the spouses hung up on each other in a mutual fit of frustration—she decided to send him a text.

What did it say? Absolutely nothing. Delano, a 29-year-old marketing account manager who lives in Miami, sent a blank text—on purpose.

Her husband wrote back immediately with a question mark. Delano asked him what he meant. He wrote again and asked if she had sent him a text. She feigned surprise. Then her husband called her.

Delano got what she was looking for: A way to continue the conversation.

"A blank text is a way to break the ice," she says. "It is a reason to call."

These days, an increasing number of adults are discovering what teenagers have long known: Texting lends itself particularly well to some serious power plays.

Want to play it cool with someone? Seem busy and important? Then send a text—with a term of endearment—that appears to be written to someone else. Or ask "who is this?" when you receive a text. Have a friend text you repeatedly when you're on a date. Claim not to have gotten a text you actually received.

Let's call it bluffting: A text with a little bluffing.

Shawn Farner, a 26-year-old freelance Web communications specialist from Harrisburg, Pa., often waits to return a text from a woman he is interested in—sometimes for hours or even days. He learned the power of this technique several years ago, when a woman he was dating returned his texts only once or twice a day. "The lack of instant gratification absolutely consumed my brain," he says.

Now, if a woman takes a day to get back to him, Farner takes a day to get back to her. He once waited two weeks to write a woman—after she'd taken two weeks to write him.

Farner admits this manipulative behavior is childish. But he also recognizes it as an integral part of today's dance between the sexes.

Consider our relationship with our smartphones. Many of us carry one at all times, customize it with ring tones and cases and sleep with it. And research has shown that we get a rush of neurochemicals related to pleasure, including dopamine, when we receive messages.

"It's perfect for manipulation," says Sherry Turkle, a psychologist in the program in Science, Technology, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We can create anxiety because it's so intimate."

Texting is also immediate. Most people see texts faster than they see email or pick up their voice messages. And they expect a reply right away, according to Turkle, who has researched this.

When we send a text, we expect a reply in three minutes, she said. If we haven't received one in five minutes, we get antsy. "And if we still haven't heard back in 10 minutes, we believe something is wrong, that we are being ignored," said Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other."

Especially when we are insecure—think dating—we yearn for control. "It's about the id—the child who wants everything now," says Soroya Bacchus, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsions. "And now we have a device for complete gratification of that."

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